A History of Civil Rights Legislation in America
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Thursday, July 2nd, marks the 56th anniversary of the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the most significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and prohibited the segregation policies that relegated Black Americans to separate schools, restaurants, restrooms, and drinking fountains during the Jim Crow era.
But while the 1964 bill rightfully gets significant recognition for its role in the advancement of civil rights, it’s just one of many notable civil rights bills that have been enacted since the Civil War. Here’s a look back at some of the major civil rights bills.
Significant Historical Civil Rights Legislation
The initial movement on civil rights legislation occurred while the Civil War was still ongoing. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, which changed the legal status of slaves in secessionist Confederate states from slave to free. It took effect on January 1, 1863, and while it ultimately took the Union’s victory in the Civil War to bring it into effect throughout the former Confederacy, all slaves who escaped bondage in the South before the war’s conclusion were considered free. Lincoln recognized the limits of his executive action in terms of guaranteeing the post-war status of freed slaves, and turned to his Republican majorities in Congress to enact constitutional & legislative changes in the final years of the Civil War. This led to the enactment of what became known as the Reconstruction Amendments ― the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery & indentured servitude except in cases of criminal punishment, passed the Senate on April 8, 1864, on a 38-6 vote with Republicans in favor and all but two Democrats opposed, but two months later it faltered in the House after a similarly party-line 93-65 vote left it 13 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage. Congressional action stalled until after the 1864 election, when Lincoln won re-election & Republicans reinforced their majorities on a platform featuring the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment.
Lincoln & his allies procured votes by promising government jobs & campaign contributions to defeated Democrats, which helped narrow the margin needed for passage to five. Radical Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-MA) later remarked that “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Later in the lame duck session, after Lincoln resorted to direct emotional appeals to certain members of Congress. On January 31, 1865, the House held another vote on the 13th Amendment, which passed 119-56 to the support of 84 Republicans, 2 Independent Republicans, 16 Unconditional Unionists, 3 Unionists, and 14 Democrats ― plus the abstentions of 8 Democrats which lowered the two-thirds majority threshold from 122 to 117. The vote prompted open celebration in the House, including cheers from Black onlookers in the gallery who had only been allowed to attend congressional sessions since the prior year. The 13th Amendment was ratified by the requisite three-fourths of the states on December 6, 1865, and was formally adopted on December 18, 1865 ― a little more than eight months after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
By the time the 13th Amendment became the law of the land, Congress had already moved on to a new civil rights bill aimed at protecting the civil rights of Black Americans that would’ve defined citizenship & affirmed the equal protection of all citizens under the law. It sought to counteract the Black Codes adopted in the former Confederate states which restricted the movement of Blacks, barred their ownership of firearms, restricted their access to court, and forced them into labor contracts. The bill passed Congress in 1865, but the bill was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson ― Lincoln’s 1864 running mate who was a Democrat pre-Civil War, was a Southern Unionist during the war, and eventually returned to the Democratic Party in 1868. Congress again passed the legislation in 1866, but after Johnson vetoed it a second time congressional Republicans overrode the veto and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 became law.
However, some in Congress argued that the legislative branch didn’t have the constitutional power to enforce the new civil rights law, so they moved to enact the 14th Amendment which ultimately guaranteed equal protection under the law, ensures the right to due process, and defines citizenship. The text of the 14th Amendment was a compromise that left some Radical Republicans disappointed that voting rights were left out, but it cleared Congress as amended in June 1866 on votes of 33-11 in the Senate and 138-36 in the House. Its ratification process was more lengthy than its predecessor, and Congress passed a series of bills known as the Reconstruction Acts which imposed requirements on former Confederate states to be readmitted to the Union. One such stipulation was the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which was ratified on July 9, 1868.
The election of Republican President Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 & the continuation of their majorities encouraged congressional Republicans to push for more civil rights legislation, including ensuring the voting rights of Black men in the South ― which at the time were only guaranteed through the Union Army’s occupation ― and in the North, where only 8 states allowed Black men to vote. The 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal government & the states from denying the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” was the third and final of the Reconstruction Amendments. Congress passed the 15th Amendment in February 1869 on votes of 144-44 in the House & 39-13 in the Senate, no Democrats voted in favor of the legislation, while a total of 8 Republicans voted no because the language didn’t prohibit poll taxes, literacy tests, or guarantee Blacks the right to hold office. The ratification of the 15th Amendment was completed on February 3, 1870, which led Grant to say it “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life.”
Only a few weeks passed after the 15th Amendment’s ratification before the election of the first Black American to Congress ― Sen. Hiram Rhodes Revels (R-MS) ― a Civil War veteran who argued for compromise, moderation, and racial equality. Later that year, he was joined by the first Black man elected to the House of Representatives, Rep. Joseph Rainey (R-SC). After the 1870 midterm election, Rainey was joined by five more Black Republican lawmakers who all represented districts in the South.
Despite the enactment of the Reconstruction Amendments and some electoral successes for Blacks, Rainey & other congressional Republicans pushed for the enactment of what became the Enforcement Acts to ensure the newly established rights were being sufficiently protected. The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the groups terrorizing Blacks & abridging their voting rights, led to the enactment of three Enforcement Acts which Congress passed that were signed into law by President Grant, which did the following:
- The Enforcement Act of 1870 barred state officials from discrimination in voter registration on grounds prohibited by the 15th Amendment, established penalties for violations, and gave federal courts enforcement power. It also prohibited the use of terror, force, or bribery to prevent people from voting because of their race, and prohibited groups from banding together or going in disguise along public highways or to peoples’ homes to intimidate them. Further, it allowed the president to use the Army to enforce it & federal marshals to charge offenders.
- The Second Force Act, which became law in February 1871, allowed for federal oversight of local & state elections if at least 2 citizens in a town of more than 20,000 desired it. It also revised the prior Enforcement Act to stiffen penalties.
- The Third Force Act (aka the Ku Klux Klan Act), which became law in April 1871, imposed federal liability on state officials for depriving citizens of their civil rights or equal protection under the law. It also made some of the KKK’s tactics federal offenses, authorized the president to use the military to suppress conspiracies against federal operations, and barred people suspected of such conspiracies from serving on juries related to KKK activities. Additionally, it allowed the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus if efforts to suppress the KKK proved ineffective.
Grant made extensive use of the Enforcement Acts to use the military to keep the peace in the South, and by 1872 so many KKK members were put in jail that the Klan was essentially broken as an organization. Grant & Republicans in Congress enacted another law, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which sought to provide for equal treatment in public accommodations & transportation, and prohibit exclusion from jury service. The law was partially struck down in 1883 by the Supreme Court and was the last law enacted during Reconstruction.
After Grant left office following his second term, he was succeeded by Republican Rutherford Hayes who took office after a heavily disputed election in which neither he nor Democrat Samuel Tilden won a majority in the Electoral College. The Democrat-controlled House & Republican-controlled Senate formed an Electoral Commission to resolve the crisis, which ultimately ended with Hayes securing victory after promising to remove federal troops from the South. The move brought Reconstruction to an inauspicious end, as Democrats gained control of Southern legislatures through fraud & intimidation, and promptly implemented Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise Black voters & segregate society.
Action on civil rights legislation in Congress stalled for decades amid Jim Crow, until the administration of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education found racially segregated public schools to be unconstitutional, Eisenhower wanted to signal his administration’s support for integration efforts amid staunch & often violent opposition by segregationists in the South. The aim of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was to protect the voting rights of Black Americans, who were being disenfranchised by discriminatory voter registration rules like poll taxes and literacy tests enacted by southern Democrats to the extent that only about 20% of Blacks were registered to vote.
Eisenhower’s proposal found widespread support among Republicans and northern Democrats, but encountered stiff opposition in Congress from southern Democrats. The rift created problems for Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), who wanted to pass the bill with the support of civil rights advocates while weakening it to placate southern Democrats. When the bill reached the Senate floor, it was filibustered by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, who delayed a vote by speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes ― which to date is still the longest talking filibuster in history.
Despite the record-setting filibuster, the final version of the bill passed Congress with majorities of both parties supporting it. In the House the vote was 285-126 (Republicans 167-19, Democrats 118-107) while the Senate advanced it 72-18 (Republicans 43-0, Democrats 29-18). The bill, which was the first civil rights law enacted since Reconstruction, did the following:
- It created the Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department and allowed federal prosecutors to seek injunctions and press charges for contempt of court in cases of voter intimidation or coercion.
- It also allowed federal judges to hear civil rights cases with or without juries, and to ignore state jury selection laws. This was because in much of the South, blacks were excluded from jury service by the same laws preventing them from voting and federal jury selection had been based on state rules.
- Additionally, it created a six member Civil Rights Commission in the executive branch to gather information on the deprivation of citizens’ voting rights because of their color, race, religion, or national origin directly from disenfranchised citizens. It was to provide a report to Congress with citizens’ testimony, include relevant information about the laws involved and federal policies, and recommend changes before ceasing to exist after two years.
Eisenhower signed the bill on September 9, 1957, and later that month he federalized the Arkansas National Guard & deployed the 101st Airborne Division using the Insurrection Act to ensure the protection & integration of nine Black students into Little Rock Central High School. It became apparent that southern Democrats’ efforts to weaken the bill had succeeded in part, as Black voting only increased by 3% three years after enactment, so Eisenhower successfully lobbied Congress to a pass a new bill ― the Civil Rights Act of 1960 ― which required local authorities to maintain comprehensive voting records, imposed penalties for obstructing voter registration, and extended the life of the Civil Rights Commission (which is still in operation).
Ike’s successor, Democratic President John F. Kennedy, proposed another broad civil rights bill aimed at protecting voting rights and equal access to public accommodations in June 1963, and met with organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom later that summer to discuss the bill. The push came amid elevated racial tensions and riots that spring, but JFK’s assassination in November 1963 led to Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded him as president.
LBJ lobbied Congress to pass the bill alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights groups. The House moved first on the bill, passing it after nine days of debate on a 290-130 vote on February 10, 1964, despite opposition from southern Democrats. It faced significant challenges in the Senate, where a “Southern Bloc” of 19 senators including Thurmond & Sen. Richard Russell (D-GA) threatened to block the bill. They built enough support to sustain a legislative filibuster of the bill by denying it the 67 votes needed to limit debate for 54 days, which featured a 14 hour talking filibuster by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV).
Eventually, the bill’s advocates including Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) & Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) got 71 votes to end the filibuster, and an amended version of the bill passed 73-27 (44-23 among Democrats & 27-6 among Republicans). It then went back to the House, where it passed 289-126 (153-91 among Democrats & 136-35 among Republicans). The final version of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, facilities, and schools; outlawed discrimination in federally funded projects; created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor employment discrimination; and provided powers to enforce voting rights. LBJ signed into law on July 2, 1964.
The next year, LBJ & Congress moved to pass legislation to enforce voting rights guaranteed by the 14th & 15th Amendments. LBJ addressed the nation and called for the bill after the Selma to Montgomery marches & “Bloody Sunday”, which prompted him to use the Insurrection Act so federal troops could protect marchers. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) & Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) drafted the original bill, and shepherded it past potential obstruction by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Eastland (D-MS). It eventually passed the Senate 77-19 in May 1965, and an amended version cleared the House in July on a 333-85 vote. Congress formed a conference committee and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed the House on a 328-74 vote (217-54 among Democrats & 111-20 among Republicans) on August 3rd, and it passed the Senate on a 79-18 vote (49-17 among Democrats & 30-1 among Democrats) the next day.
LBJ signed it into law with MLK, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and other civil rights leaders in attendance on August 6th, which allowed for direct federal efforts to increase black voter registration in areas where it was suppressed and prohibited the use of practices like poll taxes and literacy tests by states in an effort to restrict voting. It also required areas with historic voter discrimination to seek the DOJ’s preclearance of proposed new voting laws before they could be implemented to ensure they wouldn’t disenfranchise voters.
Congress & LBJ went on to pass another Civil Rights Act in 1968 which created federal hate crime laws, banned discrimination in housing through provisions known as the Fair Housing Act, criminalized interstate travel with the intent to engage in riots, and ensured that civil rights protections extended to jurisdictions governed by American Indian tribes. The bill’s enactment came against the backdrop of riots across the country following MLK’s assassination, which prompted LBJ to invoke the Insurrection Act & use the military to quell the unrest in D.C., Chicago, Illinois, and Baltimore, Maryland.
The civil rights laws enacted in the 20th Century helped to uphold the goals of the Reconstruction Amendments and the original civil rights bills enacted in the aftermath of the Civil War. While there are still clear signs of inequality in America today, one area in which the bills have been particularly successful is increasing Black voter participation. Black voter turnout in the South increased in the years that followed and caught up with black voter registration in the rest of the U.S. by the 1992 presidential election. According to data from USAFacts, a non-profit civic data initiative, voter turnout among blacks hit all-time highs of 60.8% in 2008 and 62% in 2012 ― which exceeded the overall voter turnout rate in those elections.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: White House Press Office / Public Domain)
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